Teaching Students Past Moral Relativism – Some Experiences in a High School English Classroom

“That’s just like, your opinion, man.”

  • Jeffrey (“The Dude”) Lebowski, The Big Lebowski

In the Coen Brothers classic, the Dude is called “a lazy man… probably the laziest in Los Angeles County, which puts him in the running for laziest worldwide.”  We laugh at the Dude’s outdated 60’s radicalism in lots of other forms.  His clothes, his music, his career-drifting, recreational drug use: these are all well-worn clichés which a millennial audience has been trained to dismiss as dated.  The trouble is, the relativistic ideology espoused by the Dude, though arguably a more destructive trend than all the rest of the hippie troupes put together, is also the most persistently accepted troupe of them all for today’s students.

By the way I don’t claim a monopoly of knowledge on this issue – I’m really interested in other teaching attempts others have made (any education level, any degree of success).  Share your comments.

  1. Introduction – The Problem Described

If you don’t believe me, try reading Plato with high school students, something I’ve done for 10 years or so at this point.  Every year, at the start of my Junior AP Language and Composition course, we read “Euthyphro,” a dialogue in which Socrates and Euthyphro argue about the meaning of the word “piety.”  The Dude’s relativism rears its ugly head early on.

The first time this problem usually shows up in my class is when we’re making our way through the first half of the dialogue, during which Euthyphro presents potential definitions of “piety” and Socrates uses his dialectical questioning to reveal those definitions’ inadequacies.  One of those definitions, the one considered at the greatest length, is that piety is “that which is pleasing to the gods.”  Socrates points out that if this definition were accepted, we would be unable to tell what was pious and what was impious, because different gods find different things pleasing.  What is pleasing to Zeus is perhaps not pleasing to Apollo, and so this definition does not work: there are, according to that definition of piety, as many ideas of “piety” as there are gods.

The problem is not that the students do not understand this argument: in fact, they understand it too well, taking it to heart in a way that is not intended (or even implied) by Plato’s interlocutors.  Though this argument occurs less than halfway through the dialogue, for the most part, even when students read the entire text with an earnest desire to learn something (this is one of the first texts read in my class, after all) what they will almost invariably take away is this single argument of Socrates as the upshot.  “The gods disagree about what is pleasing to them, and so piety is impossible to define.”  The first argument is definitely made by Socrates; the second, however, is definitely NOT.  Nowhere in the text does Socrates assert or even suggest that piety cannot be defined, but no matter what approach I take, at least initially, that is all students can take away.  In fact, Socrates is offering this argument to show Euthyphro why “what is pleasing to the Gods” is a terrible definition – and the reason why this is a terrible definition is because such a definition leads to relativism.  Since relativism is bad, for Plato, this is why we need to move towards another definition, one that does not have that problem.

My students, however, think Socrates is making another argument: that since what is pleasing to one person is not pleasing to another, there is no point in making moral arguments.  We move from here quickly to a bunch of other shopworn expressions that, for reasons I will discuss below, an American high school student of above-average intelligence is inexorably drawn to.  Beyond “that’s just, like, your opinion”, there is also “but it’s all just opinion,” “you can’t prove what’s right and what’s wrong, that’s an individual matter,” “who are you to say which is right?”  “Isn’t morality in the eye of the beholder?”  I usually humor them a bit with this sort of banter, but it’s also perennially frustrating, and so I also usually push back a bit.

One way I often push back is by saying things like “just because two people disagree about something does not mean neither of them is right.  For example, if I say ‘1+1=2’ and you say ‘1+1=3’, I am right, and you are wrong.  It does not matter if you disagree.  Or, if I say ‘the sky is blue’ and you say ‘the sky is pink’, I am right and you are wrong.”  This leads to further (slightly less) shopworn replies: “those are facts, but morality is all opinions.”  When pressed to define the distinction between “facts” and “opinions,” what usually comes forth is that in math and science (and some parts of history), “facts” are learned about, and in classes like English, it’s all “opinions”, things you cannot be right or wrong about.

Now, within academic philosophy, going all the way back to Plato, there are long-standing and decisive arguments against the naïve deployment of the fact/opinion distinction, and also the naïve relativism expressed by “morality is all opinions,” etc., and more contemporary arguments that demonstrate that the science/non-science distinction is similarly overly simplistic.  But you could explain those arguments until you are blue in the face with my students, at least at the start of the year, and you would make no progress, be as dialectical persuasive or pedagogically attuned as you want.  It will seemingly not make a dent.

  1. Why This Problem Matters

There are several reasons relativism poses a problem in the English classroom (and probably others as well).  First of all, it stifles any attempt at class discussion.  “Is civil disobedience ever justified?” goes nowhere if “well, I have one opinion, you have another, so I guess it depends what you think” is an acceptable answer.  The above-listed relativist clichés all become, when uttered by a suitably charismatic or otherwise respected student, the end of further meaningful dialogue.

On a related note, the avowed student relativist is generally a terrible persuasive writer.  If “in my opinion, we should not donate money to charity” is seen as an acceptable response to the 2005 AP Lang and Comp question about the Singer Solution to World Poverty, the odds of a good essay being written are slim to none.  Just as relativism stops discussions, it also inhibits reasoned, analytical writing.  In some ways, what we’re discussing now is the non-fictional/argumentative writing equivalent to the age-old high school student’s complaint that English teachers “overanalyze” texts.  But where that complaint is a fairly transparent ad hominem complaint against English as a discipline, the form of relativism being discussed now actually has the veneer of intellectual sophistication.  So when a student deploys “that’s just your opinion” or its various slightly-more-articulate equivalents, they do so under the impression that they are saying something clever, “intellectual” even.

This form of writing, and the limits relativism imposes on it, are not only needed in the relatively narrow confines of the AP Lang and Comp exam.  Standardized tests, where they employ an actual writing assessment, quite often expect students to write persuasively.  The ACT Writing test, for example, is almost exclusively of the “Agree/Disagree” sort of question. And beyond standardized testing, it’s not really an overstatement to say persuasive writing is, by and large, the only kind of writing students need to do at the college level.  Sure, sometimes they must give fact-laden summary presentations in intro classes, but any sort of extended writing, for Honors Theses, or upper-level seminars, will be persuasive in nature.

The last problem with relativism in our students is the largest one (though the one we’re probably in the least position to affect): this sort of relativism is destructive to the very notion of education as training for citizenship.  If we want well informed citizens who can do things like debate in a reasoned manner about whether or not comprehensive national health care reform should be undertaken, we need them to understand that “that’s just your opinion” won’t cut it.  Citizenship requires the ability to contest and navigate disagreements, not simply throw up our hands at its presence.

  1. Sources of the Problem

One of the greatest sources of this problem is simply developmental: students in the high school years are moving from a conventional to a post-conventional understanding of morality.  In general, the first 15 years of their lives have been dominated by parental authority wielded in the spirit of “because I said so.”  This is not to blame parents: there are obviously strong developmental reasons for accepting parental dicta in one’s early years.  As they move into high school, of course, this begins to change.

When talking with parents in my debate-coach years, I’d quite often be told that their student should be on the debate team.  “Why?” I would inquire, in somewhat weary fashion, knowing what was to follow only too well:  the parent’s reply, invariably some form of “they love to argue with me.”  I would literally have this conversation 10-15 times each year.  As students enter high school, they continue their separation from their parents by divorcing themselves from the umbrella of their authority.  The trouble is, at this age anyway, they have not yet discovered any suitable replacements.  There is the cult of peer opinion (omnipresent though always denied).  There are their teachers (if you’re reading this you know that’s a joke).  But in the absence of any really authoritatively felt alternative, “opinion” becomes, for a time, the only plausible option.

In addition to more inward sources of relativism, today’s student is bombarded on all sides by pro-relativist stimuli.  Social media provide perhaps the most dramatic example.  Users of Facebook, for example, are asked to “like” just about anything they want.  What is the alternative to “liking?”  Really, there isn’t one.  The choices are clear: if you like something, “like” it, and if you do not, then just leave it unexamined, presumably because a “dislike” button wouldn’t make Facebook any money.  Pretty much all social media sites work on this principle.  Today’s students are more or less surrounded by a cocoon of their own preferences, and the forces that govern that cocoon have absolutely no interest in students developing critical thinking skills which might allow them to shape those preferences.  And so for this generation, even more than previous ones, “that’s just my opinion” comes to have the force of law or gospel.

  1. Potential Solutions in the Classroom

People often misdiagnose the problem, and so offer bad solutions.  One set of bad solutions revolves around the idea that what you really need to do is convince a student that relativism is false.  It is very difficult to do this by directly logical argumentation.  That’s not because it’s difficult to make a directly logical argument, but instead because they simply aren’t in a place to hear it.  If you had to convince a group of fully developed adults, directly logical argument might work.  But if you have to convince a group of students, you must recognize the unique dynamic of their developmental and emotional situation.  It is that dynamic that needs to be altered: argument rarely works here, because they will not have the developmental resources to argue with you in a way that will get the point across.  It will fall on deaf ears: those arguments you need them to hear are the ones they are least in a position to understand.  You must bring about their conversation by other means.

To think about solutions that do work, let’s look at how Socrates’ and Euthyphro’s argument goes: when Socrates points out that Euthyphro’s definition doesn’t work as a definition for piety, because it means there are too many different versions of piety it would imply, because too many different divine opinions on what pleases them, Euthyphro sees the problem and moves on.  Why does Euthyphro see this problem in a way our students do not?  Is it because he is more intelligent or more developed?  Not really.  The reason Euthyphro understands that a definition of piety that is relativistic will not do, is because Euthyphro needs a definition of piety that does work, because if he cannot come up with such a definition, he cannot engage in an activity he wants to: the prosecution of the trial of his father.  Socrates has shown Euthyphro that if he believes trying his father is the pious thing to do, he had better understand what piety is first.   Euthyphro can’t just say “well, then I guess we’ll go with that definition of piety, even if there are many different things the gods like” because then he cannot be sure that continuing to prosecute his father is in fact consistent with piety.  If Socrates wins the argument, Euthyphro will be revealed as a hypocrite, not just someone who’s not as smart as Socrates.

To generalize from the lesson of Socrates and Euthyphro: when a person is involved in an activity that requires moral commitments, they cannot just say “it’s all a matter of opinion” when called on to defend those commitments.  No one wants to be a hypocrite: people want to believe that their actions are justified, and will generally defend their actions, and search for justifications, if called upon to do so.  The trouble is, for several reasons, students at this age do not generally perceive themselves as actors whose actions have moral assumptions that need defending.  Students quite often seem to fall into a passive, observer-type position with respect to most of the issues that give rise to all the “that’s just your opinion” type talk.  It is their experience of passivity that is an important root cause of their willingness to accept relativism as a serious option.

If you as a teacher want to remove relativism from your classroom, then, you must remove passivity as well.  Students must be placed in situations where, like Euthyphro, they cannot just say “that’s just an opinion, everyone’s opinions are as good as everyone else’s.”  They must be forced to defend their moral commitments in situations where they will feel the need to defend them.

Formal Debate – This is one of the greatest benefits of formal Debate.  Students forced to defend a position, even though it is for purely competitive reasons, will actually defend those positions.  If one debater is defending the morality of capital punishment, and the second says “but that’s just your opinion”, and then the first one says back to them “but that’s also just your opinion” everyone in the room can see they are not getting anywhere.  In order to win that debate, one of the debaters, at some point, will have to defend their opinion.  And once that make the jump into actually defending an opinion, “that’s just your opinion” starts to become far less persuasive to them on other fronts as well.  Formal debating can help get them out of their developmental holding pattern, because it draws on resources that are already on hand: even if they don’t yet know where authority comes from, if not their parents, they do already experience feelings of competiveness on a regular basis.  “Wanting to win” provides a set of building blocks with which the construction of arguments that get past the relativistic stage can be built.

Morally Ambiguous Literature – A formal debate draws on competitive urges and public speaking abilities that are present in some students, but not all.  What else can be done – that might draw on other qualities already present in our relativism-stage students?  For our more creatively minded, artsy types, put them into a situation where those artsy, creative urges force them to make moral judgments.  Build a situation which requires them to confront a moral choice in a creative-writing or reading context.  A play like Antigone (and also many, many more plays) highlight the urgency and tragedy behind moral decision and conflict.  A Student that can identify with Antigone is also a student that understands that sometimes, moral choice is unavoidable.  Antigone is either going to bury her brother, and be sentenced to death, or she is going to obey Creon, and be condemned by her family and the gods.  She cannot say “I don’t know, it’s just your opinion either way”, because it is her decision, not somebody else’s.  Bring creative students to see real-life and fictional experiences that required decision, get them to appreciate the dynamics of those decisions, and then their already existing capacities for empathy and creativity can be used to bring them past relativism.

Direct Instruction in Writing and Logic – Some students are not enthused about the idea of a formal debate, but also do not like the open-ended creativity required to read or write literature.  Students in this situation are often students who “just want to know what the answer is.”  They are the sort of students that are very good at math and science, where they are comforted by the seeming objectivity of the answer.  What they need is to understand the “moving parts” within arguments.  Since they respond well to direct instruction, they will be willing to process things like syllogisms, enthymemes, etc.  They may, to some extent anyway, respond well to this age-old anti-relativistic argument: “the opinion ‘no opinion is more correct than any other’ is self-contradictory.  Either this opinion is itself correct, in which case there is at least one opinion that is more correct than others, or, this opinion itself is incorrect, which means the relativistic thesis is itself wrong. “ [Be warned though – this type of student may like this line of argument, but it will drive the creative types up the wall!]  They will respond well to rigorous defenses of particular moral claims, as they will see the logic working at them, but they may resist the generalization that this disproves relativism.  But a student like this is less interested in the big picture anyway, they just want to know how a bunch of small pictures work.  They may also just appreciate knowing that relativism isn’t a good strategy for writing, and be willing to set aside the broader philosophical or emotional reservations they may have.  They will see themselves as active participants in moral discussions and debates when they have good instructions to follow.

Role Playing – A last category of students still exists: ones that don’t care so much for debating, creative writing/reading or direct instruction: these are kids that learn from processing ideas in social contexts.  This is, to be honest, the most difficult group to reach.  They are so consumed with the details of their social world (a world in which “that’s just your opinion” is, as described above, sacrosanct) that any authoritative pronouncement that it is not (however logical or well-intentioned) will hold no sway.  What do you do to help this group along?  You draw on the resources of social life itself.  Place them in constructed situations that force them to negotiate morally ambiguous factors.   Construct a situation analogous to Antigone’s, give several students roles to play, and force them into arguing about it.  That’s not that much different from a formal debate, but it will feel like it is to these students. Now their need for social interaction will pull them along in the moral-development context rather than inhibit them from entering it.

  1. Conclusion – It’s Not Easy

Since the problem of relativism is largely developmental, there is only so much we can facilitate.  Several year ago, for one year, I taught seniors instead of juniors: in this respect, the difference was night and day.  It wasn’t that the students had any more general intelligence or were better students, but when it came to class discussions involving issues of moral ambiguity, “that’s just your opinion” was just way less likely to surface.  They weren’t very good at answering that argument when it was made, but they also generally didn’t make it, and when it came up, it was more likely to be just dismissed as insignificant or hypothetical. Their sense of self just no longer clung to this argument.

Still, there are things to be done, and I have tried to make some suggestions above.  One thing to keep in mind, though, is that different routes will work for different students, and some of the strategies that will work with one kind of student will actually develop resistance in others.  If you give a lecture that tries to prove relativism false, you may just agitate students who still “feel” that it is true.  If you make every student debate, some will relish the experience and others will be terrified by it.  The goal, overall, is to get students to see themselves as active participants in moral disputes, rather than passive observers.  Each student will make that jump in their own way.

The last thought I’ll offer is just the simple reminder that this is a process.  You cannot construct a single lesson which will decisively eliminate relativism from your classroom.  The most you can hope for is that, over the course of the year, these issues become gradually less of an obstacle to effective discussion, writing and eventually meaningful citizenship.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Teaching Students Past Moral Relativism – Some Experiences in a High School English Classroom

  1. David says:

    This is great, Josh. It will come as no surprise to you that many of your anecdotes are vividly familiar to me, and I’ve also been regularly frustrated by student’s all-too-quick embrace of relativism, in its sundry forms. It will be hard to add anything you haven’t at least gestured at, but three points come immediately to mind. The first two have to do with the ‘problem’–the third with a ‘solution.’

    1. Students, in my experience, seek the path of least resistance in just about every single thing they do. Early on they see Relativism as an alternative to argument, and argument is, well, very hard. It requires thought, communication, interpretation, reasoning, etc. etc. But Relativism, the student believes, means that all this hard work is moot! So Relativism is easy and hence popular.

    2. Relativism is not just an enticing view for the lazy–it has had currency among philosophers since the beginning of philosophical reflection, as you know well, and even students approaching philosophical issues and arguments for the first time can feel the pull of the Relativist’s arguments. So I guess I’m saying that when my student express relativistic sympathies I don’t immediately suppose that their attraction to the view is entirely in bad faith, though I do also believe, per (1), that their tendency to embrace the view quickly has much less to do with force of argument and much more to do with the appearance of an easy workaround.

    3. So, my solution, such as it is. I treat Relativism as a totally live theoretical option in the classroom, but one which, just like all other theoretical options we canvass, requires rational support. Much like you’ve done through debate and related activities, I’ve found the best way to get around the knee jerk relativist and the damage that does to the classroom dynamic is just to shelve issues about whether philosophical claims belong to the realm of fact or opinions and just insist, from the start, that all opinions, whatever the subject matter, be clearly articulated and rationally defended. And if some clever smart aleck asks why that requirement should hold, I say that that’s how we figure things out together, and presumably they have a view about the way things are and want to help us figure things out. (If they can’t make that minimal commitment then I pull them aside and tell them that a philosophy class, and a university, and a free society, might not be the best place for them.)

    They quickly realize that the Relativist owes us arguments just like everyone else does–that when it comes to issues of such obvious importance (for example, is morality something we just make up, or are there objective moral requirements that apply to us independently of custom and taste?) you have to have something intelligent to say regardless of how you come down on the issue.

    So to the student who insists it’s all just people’s opinions, I encourage him or her to acknowledge that some opinions are, nevertheless, better informed than others, and that some reasons are plainly stronger than others, and some arguments plainly better, etc. And the cool thing is that when you get deep enough into the actual give and take of rational dialogue Relativism begins to look like an increasingly peculiar view, susceptible to a kind of practical refutation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *